Now, I don’t know if this is because I’m 23 years old, female, or just generally a bit of a baby, but when I told people at the end of last year that I was off to backpack Brazil and Colombia I was generally met with resounding gasps. “Why do you want to go there?” “Is it safe?” “Aren’t you scared?” In fact, I kind of was, but did I need to be?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because it’s good to be cautious and keep your wits about you wherever you go. And there’s no denying that most South American countries do have high levels of crime. However, I strongly believe that this shouldn’t put you off visiting – I had precisely zero negative experiences in two months in South America, and though I only spent time in two countries, Brazil and Colombia are often considered two of the ‘worst’ (whatever that means).
This isn’t to suggest that because I didn’t experience anything bad, that these things don’t happen. I met several travellers in Brazil and Colombia who had some scary stories about being robbed or pickpocketed, and I’m aware that I’m lucky to have not been one of them. One thing that all these stories had in common though was that the assailants were only interested in money or valuables – the vast majority of crimes in tourists in South America are non-violent robberies, and while this is undoubtedly a horrible thing to go through, handing over your money or phone is far better than the potential consequences of putting up a fight. All the victims I met were left shaken up and frustrated, however none of them seemed to feel that their trip was spoilt. They had no desire to go home because of their negative experiences, which they didn’t let tarnish their perceptions of a beautiful continent filled with incredible people.
There are a few things you can do to help keep yourself safe whilst travelling South America. Firstly, recognise and respect which areas are a no go. For instance, a lot of bad stories we heard took place late at night on Rio’s Copacabana beach, despite the fact that every hostel I stayed in or guidebook I read made it clear that this area should be off limits after dark. If you are warned to stay away from somewhere, particularly by locals, then believe it’s for a good reason! It’s also essential not to carry your cards or large amounts of cash on your person, and to be on guard when getting out your phone or camera even in touristic areas.
Avoid scaring yourself by reading other people’s horror stories online, because the day to day realities of backpacking in South America will be very different to what you expect! Obviously it’s important to do your research, but if you google ‘violent crimes South America’ then the only things you’ll hear about will be… violent crimes in South America, duh! I remember reading a story about a tourist being attacked with a wooden stake in Medellin and obsessing over it for weeks before I went there, only to find that Medellin was one of the most relaxed, friendliest cities I have ever been to.
In fact, although I’ve had a few hairy moments whilst travelling, none of the worst ones happened in South America. Getting lost in a taxi for three hours in rural China without the language skills to communicate with our driver (or anyone) is one that springs to mind, or the time we almost got stranded miles out at sea in a tiny boat during a tropical storm in Bali – the only time I’ve ever genuinely thought that I might die. When I look back on our South America trip however, I don’t have any negative memories. I remember waking up and sipping Colombian coffee, listening to toucans and looking out over the Sierra Nevada mountains. I remember drinking caipirinhas and dancing with hundreds of people on the streets of Lapa. But more than anything I remember the amazing kindness of South American people – like the jogger who called off his run to walk us to the nearest train station when we were lost in Sao Paulo, or the family who invited us to drink beer and eat chicken wings with them in Rio, despite a very real language barrier. South America, I can’t wait to see you again!